FOSTERING RESILIENCE IN A WORLD THAT INCLUDES SUFFERING
by Glenn Peters, Ph.D.
People who are struggling to cope with hardship usually experience many powerful emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety. Individuals who are less resilient stay stuck longer in these negative emotions and thoughts even after the hardship has long ended. More resilient people more quickly revert to their pre-hardship psychological state. This is often called the bounce back. These more resilient people can even develop a new sense of purpose in their lives. From hardship and trauma we can develop new strengths that we did not even know existed within us. Magic Johnson in the ESPN movie “The Announcement” describes many intense struggles within himself before he could find the courage to turn a tremendous traumatic hardship into a positive purpose in life. He turned his own suffering with the HIV virus into a newfound calling” that has helped not only him, but also many others.
So how can one become more resilient? Here’s a look at a few key characteristics of people who manifest resilience during life’s hardships.
A Sense of Hope and Trust in the World
Resilient people rely on their core belief in the basic goodness of the world and trust that things will turn out all right in the end. They trust that they will find an answer to their hardship; and they don’t allow themselves to fall into long term self-pity, emotional despondency, or hate. You can start to see this in the family, friends, and victims who were injured in the recent Orlando mass murder. Many of them are struggling with their recent loss, feeling the tremendous sadness, pain, and anger that are signs of significant grief. Yet some of these individuals are already displaying some early forms of resilience in the way that they are dealing with this trauma and loss.
However, after a significant trauma, such as this, it often takes time before trust and hope can once again flourish. Some, if not many, of the individuals who have suffered at the hands of this mass murderer will also suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Those who suffer from PTSD experience a form of trauma that is so severe that it has significant impact on their ability to function.
They often have difficulty in falling or staying asleep, they are irritable and will have outbursts of anger, they often have difficulty in concentrating, and they often become hyper-vigilant. Individuals who have PTSD lose their sense of trust and safety. Individuals who have PTSD will often need the professional assistance of others, such as a psychotherapist, to help them to restore a basic sense of trust in the world.
An example of a form of psychotherapy that resolves the consequences of trauma and helps to restore a sense of safety and trust is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. The development of safety is considered an essential aspect of the EMDR approach, because trauma cannot be resolved without a renewed sense of safety and trust.
A Meaningful System of Support
One of the best ways to endure and to emerge positively from a crisis is to have the support of another person who can listen to you and validate your feelings. Knowing that others care and will come to our support decreases the feeling of isolation that can befall a trauma victim. The victims who are suffering from the Orlando mass murder will have a better chance of recovering if they turn toward their friends, families, and each other with compassion, kindness, and love. Resilient people aren’t stoic loners.
Dorothea McArthur in the September 2010 article “If You Are Hit You Don’t have to Fall” speaks about the meaningful connection between strangers that led to an expression of compassion for a deer that had been hit by a car. The compassion expressed in the words and gentle touching that occurred seemed to help bring the deer back to life. It appears that the meaningful compassionate relation of these individuals not only helped the deer, but also helped the people that were involved.
Interpreting Experiences in a New Light
The ability to look at facts in a new way can minimize the impact of a difficult situation. The psychologist Donald Michenbaum, Ph.D. points out that finding the redemptive aspects of a tragic story is a behavior that is directly linked to resilient people. Resilient people take a creative approach toward their tragedy, finding what is hopeful and meaningful for them in their sorrow.
An individual I know sums up this attitude by saying that if her daughter had not been murdered she would not have been able to help other mothers through their grief process. This individual helped establish support groups for other grieving mothers, transforming her own pain by making a difference for others. She learned that good actions in helping others could lead to good consequences that gave her life purpose once again.
Facing what befalls you rather than succumbing to fear and avoidance Individuals who are resilient eventually learn to face what has happened to them. They may not be able to face it immediately, but over time they learn to face and to accept the deeper emotional aspects of the tragedy. They learn not to stay stuck in blaming others, situations, or God. They also learn to accept their own powerlessness in not being able to stop the tragedy. They eventually give up that recurring, despairing, and self-blaming thought process that if only I had done this that would not have happened. There is an old Chinese proverb that out of crisis, opportunity arises. But the opportunity arises only when you can recognize and accept the crisis and then seek out the opportunity.
I remember this in my own life, when my wife had become seriously ill. I recognized that both my wife and I were in for some very hard times. Watching her become more and more sick and disabled was often unbearable. Yet I stayed focused on the side of hope rather than despair. I felt despair at times, along with other emotions, including fear and anger. But I stayed determined in my compassion and commitment. I can look back at this now. It was during this time that my wife and I became closer to each other, struggling and fighting together against this disease. I learned to help her, and she learned to accept my help, in ways that we had not done in the past. I also gained a stronger recognition of my capacity to make a commitment, and a stronger capacity to be assertive, which was necessary to help my wife get the attention that she needed. Just like other stories that I mentioned above, I recognized that others, namely friends and family, could help me get through that time in my life. I was able to get through this difficult time because ultimately I was willing to face hardship.
Self-Reflection and Insight
Life’s experiences provide fertile ground for learning. Asking yourself questions that invite introspection can open a door to a new understanding and appreciation of who you are and what you stand for. Giving voice to your thoughts and feelings leads to insight and helps to transform a problem into something useful. The resilient people mentioned in this article learned from life situations and did not succumb to punishing themselves because of decisions they had made in the past. These resilient people gained a deeper understanding of themselves and others through tragedy. They became aware of the tough issues that were before them whether it concerned developing a new purpose in their lives, or letting go of what was in the past. Their ability to do this is a model to us all, showing the human capacity to transform in the midst of the most difficult adversities. We all have the potential to transform, in our unique ways.
Fortunately, if you look to improve your own resilience during more minor misfortunes or hassles- rather than when significant tragedy or adversity pays a visit-you will learn ways to buffer, and to grapple more constructively with, the harshest sting of adversity. You will have practiced how to be resilient in a world that includes suffering.
Dr. Glenn Peters is a Clinical Psychologist and a Licensed Marriage Family and Child Psychotherapist. He is also a Certified EMDR Therapist practicing in Encino and Glendale. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. You can contact Dr. Peters at (818) 475-2666 or Gappsyche@aol.com. His website is http://www.glennpetersphd.com